“I don’t think any American can be satisfied to find in McDowell County, in West Virginia, 20 or 25 percent of the people of that county out of work, not for 6 weeks or 12 weeks, but for a year, 2, 3, or 4 years.” – John F. Kennedy, May 5, 1963
I share the above quote to highlight that the issue of poverty in rural America is not a new one, especially in economically distressed areas that have historically been supported by a single industry. In the 1960s, President Kennedy and his brother Bobby visited West Virginia and put the spotlight on Appalachian poverty, a still pervasive issue. Recently, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont attempted to do a town hall, in conjunction with MSNBC, from Welch, West Virginia in McDowell County. The West Virginia National Guard however cancelled the event, which was scheduled to held at an armory and cited a policy that stated that their facilities cannot be used for partisan political activity. I challenge this explanation. Bernie Sanders is not visiting as a political candidate, he’s a sitting US Senator. While Sanders is running for re-election, he’s running in Vermont and not West Virginia. West Virginia’s sitting Senator Joe Manchin, who is also running for re-election, had no involvement in the event. The act of being an office holder is it itself not partisan. Labeling any activity by a sitting office holder as “political activity” is a slippery slope that essentially silences our elected officials. What the West Virginia National Guard did was silence Senator Sanders and his attempt to put a spotlight on rural poverty. This is unacceptable.
As The Daily Yonder notes here and here., our economic recovery has been heavily tilted towards urban areas with many rural communities having yet to recover from the Great Recession. As the above graph shows, the rate of recovery from the Great Recession in metro areas has far outpaced non-metro areas. A byproduct of the lack of recovery in rural communities has been anemic population growth or even population decline. The aforementioned McDowell County, once a booming coal producing area, has shrunken from almost 100,000 in the middle of the 20th century to approximately 19,000 today. Within Maine, a similar but less dramatic decline can be seen in Aroostook County, which has declined from its 1960 peak of 106,064 to 68,628 in 2015. In the 2010 Census, the County had a population of 71,708.
This is an issue that needs to be dissected, discussed, and debated. These are real people, with real lives and real stories, who are being left behind by the changing economy. They’re watching their hometowns die and opportunities go away. The public schools, often the bedrock of a small rural community, are shrinking or in some cases closing outright. The schools that remain are often chronically underfunded (Leandro in North Carolina and Claremont in New Hampshire are just two court cases that deal with the lack of funding given to rural districts). In Maine, shrinking rural districts are spending less per pupil than the more affluent, growing areas in Southern Maine. With our economy shifting towards industries that favor educational attainment, these communities are at a major competitive disadvantage.
Rural America is also struggling with a raging opioid and heroin epidemic that continues to claim the lives of people everyday. Rural communities all over the country are dealing with this scourge. The heroin epidemic claims mothers and fathers, sons, and daughters. As this graphic from the New York Times shows, deaths from drug overdoses have skyrocketed in rural America.
Rural citizens look out their windows and they don’t see the prosperous, growing America that data tells us is there. They look out their window and see empty storefronts, empty schools, and fewer people. They may see a former community theater that is now a rotting shell. They may pass their former elementary school, now just a rotting building, as they drive their child to school in a neighboring town. They may read their morning newspaper and see yet another overdose death in their community. They may go to the mailbox, collect their unemployment check, and then scan the want ads, looking for jobs that once existed but are never coming back. People are hurting and that hurt is hidden from mainstream attention. These are people worth fighting for.
When the West Virginia National Guard tells Bernie Sanders that he can’t have a town hall event in their Armory, they are silencing his attempts to bring attention to the very issues I outlined here. This attention could not only bring increased funding through private philanthropy but also result in increased pressure on our public officials to allocate additional resources to these communities. These issues are hidden from the majority of Americans, they’re hidden in the forests, mountains, and even our wide open plains. We must continue to fight for a better rural America. From John F. Kennedy to Bernie Sanders, we have seen many warriors step up. It is a fight worth fighting. As President Kennedy said almost 54 years ago, I don’t think that any American can be satisfied by the status quo.